Reflecting on the biggest battle of all

Riverina Highlands RFS District Manager Jon Gregory and District Coordinator Peter Jones reflect on the recent bushfire crisis at Riverina Highlands RFS headquarters in Tumut.

Riverina Highlands RFS District Manager Jon Gregory and District Coordinator Peter Jones have no doubt that the recent bushfire crisis was the greatest in the region’s recorded history.

“Without a doubt, these were unprecedented fire conditions,” Mr Gregory said.

Both men are confident the worst of it is over, but the fire season is not.

“We’ve turned a corner,” Mr Jones said.

“We’ve only got a bit more than a month to go. I suspect that things are easing to the point where the season will finish at the end of March.”

They believe the season will not have to be extended like last year.

“We’ve been lucky enough to get some decent rain and things have greened up a bit, relative humidity has increased, and there is more rain on the forecast for next week,” Mr Gregory said.

“That doesn’t mean to say that we need to be less vigilant. We need to maintain vigilance and be very careful because it is still quite dry; fire will start and will run.”

Mr Gregory and Mr Jones believe the fire crews did the best job possible to battle the fires.

“Because of the immense nature of the fire, from the North Coast to the Victorian border, resources were stretched to the max,” Mr Gregory said.

“In a normal situation we are able to pull in lots of external support; this time around, particularly early on in the Dunns Road fire we had to battle with what we had locally.

“The local crews all punched above their weight; they really extended themselves to protect their communities and they should be proud.”

They don’t believe a better job would have been done with more resources.

“The commissioner is saying, and senior executive of the RFS, that the fire conditions we witnessed, it wouldn’t have mattered how many fire trucks we had; we were basically passengers; we had to go into property protection mode only; we could fight a fire which had 200 foot high flames; we had to pull back and adjust to property protection,” Mr Gregory said.

“Our priorities in this fire were life, property and then the environment and we focused on the first two as our main priorities.

“Firefighters’ lives are well and truly our first priority, we don’t put our firefighters as risk.”

One of the good things to come out of the fires is the increase in people signing up to be RFS volunteers.

“We are witnessing an increased interest in membership of the brigades at the moment,” Mr Gregory said.

Mr Jones said that with the Riverina Highlands RFS cadet program, which began for 2020 three weeks ago, there are 15 cadets at McAuley Catholic Central School now, and four of these are from families with brigade members.

“They want their kids to be trained as firefighters,” he said.

As the community is thankful for the effort put in by the firefighters to defeat fires, so the RFS is grateful for the support the crews got from the community.

“In some respects we need to thank the community for what they did for us,” Mr Gregory said.

“A lot of people put shovels on their vehicles and went out and assisted. In some cases because the community got in and helped the RFS we were able to save a lot more properties.”

Mr Jones said there were many other things that community members did for the fire crews which meant they were able to spend more time fighting the fire.

“People were feeding the firefighters at Adelong, and that was an example of what the brigades would normally have had to do themselves,” he said.

Mr Gregory recounted a time when a few local ladies made 500 sandwiches for hungry firefighters at the Tumut RFS shed.

Mr Jones paid tribute to those who came from overseas to help from the likes of New Zealand, Canada and the United States, which he said was unprecedented in the area.